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22 October 2011

Innovation in Business

Tag(s): Business, Innovation

 Every year the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), for which I have performed a number of assignments, holds its Innovate conference at the Business Design Centre in Islington. This year’s event, held a couple of weeks ago, was attended by 2,400 delegates.

On the evening before I was privileged to be invited to a high level gathering of business innovation leaders held at the offices of Inmarsat. Hidden away in Shoreditch this must be one of London’s best kept secrets. Inmarsat is a British satellite telecommunications company, offering global, mobile services. It provides telephony and data services to users worldwide, via portable or mobile terminals which communicate to ground stations through eleven geostationary telecommunications satellites. Inmarsat's network provides communications services to a range of governments, aid agencies, media outlets and businesses with a need to communicate in remote regions or where there is no reliable terrestrialnetwork and particularly at sea.    

The company was founded in 1979 as the International Maritime Satellite Organization(Inmarsat), a not-for-profit international organization, set up at the behest of the International Maritime Organization(IMO), a UN body, for the purpose of establishing a satellite communications network for the maritime community. It began trading in 1982.From the beginning, the acronym "Inmarsat" was used. The intent was to create a self-financing body which would improve safety of life at sea. The name was changed to "International Mobile Satellite Organization" when it began to provide services to aircraft and portable users, but the acronym "Inmarsat" was kept.

In 1999 it was partially privatised with a small group becoming the regulatory body, IMSO while the bulk of the organisation was converted into the commercial company, Inmarsat plc. This entity was listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2005 and has been a constituent of the FTSE 100 Index from September 2008.

In their offices is a control suite overseeing the network in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. A few of us were invited to visit this where one of their senior technical staff explained the operation. We could see how many satellite links were connected by territory. If they were at sea they still appeared as in the land of registration but nevertheless we could see how many people were using these links in sensitive countries like Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and Syria. Our guide explained how they tracked the news to see where they might need to boost signals in the event of natural disasters, for example, but also when Governments facing uprising as in the “Arab spring” turned off their domestic network many individuals and indeed foreign embassies would turn to satellite services provide by Inmarsat. Throughout its brief life the company has continuously upgraded its technology and launched a series of better and more powerful satellites. It is a fine example of British engineering and innovation.

At the reception Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury gave a speech. In his role he is the man who has to say "No” so I did not expect much but he showed a refreshingly sound knowledge of the importance of innovation and the role the TSB plays in connecting the business and research communities.

At the main event his Lib Dem colleague, Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills was similarly enlightened. He only mentioned cuts once in the context of protecting the science budget during the painful process of making necessary cuts, but otherwise was uncharacteristically upbeat showing a sophisticated understanding of the importance of innovation. Indeed he joked that as an economist he could admit that economists often disagreed about their subject but on one thing were all agreed; that innovation was the key to economic growth. As the minister for innovation I hope he continues to deliver this message.

There was a buzz in the room with many companies demonstrating their innovations in which the TSB had played a funding role. There was no negative message, only the positive ones of looking for partners or help in other ways in bringing ideas to market, both here in the UK and globally.

But I have seen little mention of this in the doom laden media.

Syl Saller, Global Innovation Director of Diageo also has “Innovation” in her title. She was the speaker this week at the Marketors’ annual Bowden Charter Dinner held in the beautiful surroundings of Drapers’ Hall. Continuing Master Jim Surguy's theme this year of Innovation Syl demonstrated a deep understanding of what it means even in mature brands like Johnnie Walker. The world’s favourite brand of Scotch whisky was founded in the 19th century by the eponymous John “Johnnie“  Walker soon after blending Scotch whisky was first legalised.  The blend was based on the famous Cardhu malt whisky which Johnnie Walker & Sons eventually bought to ensure that only they had access to the distinctive Speyside malt. But it was John’s son Alexander and his subsequent descendants who gave the brand its famous characteristics.  The square bottle was introduced to reduce breakages and to get more bottles in the same space. The angled label allowed larger lettering. The colour variations, Red, Black, Blue etc, denoting different strengths, blends and ages have of course been most distinctive. Johnnie Walker was a global brand in 120 countries before Coca Cola had left the United States for the first time and today the brand is distributed in just about every country in the world. The Striding Man was introduced in 1908 and is still used in advertisements today.

Syl and her team have continued to stretch the brand to ever higher limits with a series of exclusive and limited edition versions. While the established Blue Label brand can sell for over $200 per bottle newer versions have tested price limits at first $500, then $3,000 and even multiples of that. For example on  July 25, 2005, the makers of Johnnie Walker Blue Label celebrated the 200th Anniversary of the birth  of its founder with the release of just 200 bottles of a special edition blend, specially created by the Johnnie Walker Master Blender, Jim Beveridge. None of the 200 bottles were made available for retail sale. In recognition of John Walker’s entrepreneurial success in bringing whisky of the highest quality to the world, the bottles were presented to individuals deemed to have made the most significant contribution to modern life. It is estimated that each bottle is valued at $30,000.

Individual customers in the Far East have placed orders for some of these exclusive editions for their personal use in excess of $100,000.

Syl insisted that her lessons were not exclusively for multi-nationals with well-established market leading brands. A commitment to continuous innovation by challenging conventional wisdom applied equally to small family firms. If only we can spread this message more widely we have a chance of restoring economic growth.

 

Copyright David C Pearson 2011 All rights reserved




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